01/20/2006 12:00AM

Happy Ticket meets locals in return

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A sleeping infant would be able to point out the class drop Happy Ticket is taking when she makes her 2006 debut on Sunday at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs. After ending a tremendous 2005 campaign in a trio of Grade 1 races in New York, Happy Ticket launches her 5-year-old campaign in the $100,000 Lagniappe Ladies Sprint, a 5 1/2-furlong race restricted to Louisiana-breds. Odds in the range of 1-5 seem likely.

But Happy Ticket's comeback is not without intrigue. She will have to run an especially poor race for any of the eight rivals entered against her to win, but Happy Ticket is making her first start since having surgery in Kentucky to repair a breathing problem that stopped her cold in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The Breeders' Cup turned slightly sour an otherwise sweet season, when owner Stewart Madison and trainer Andy Leggio took their star filly out of Louisiana and onto the road, winning the Grade 3 Arlington Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing a troubled second to Madcap Escapade in the Princess Rooney at Calder, and winning the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga in late August.

didn't get a clear trip when she finished second to Ashado in the Grade 1 Beldame, and looked like a major contender in the Breeders' Cup after a scorching workout during the week of the race. But Happy Ticket instead turned in the worst start of an otherwise exceptional career, finishing 11th of 13.

Leggio has brought Happy Ticket along at her own pace this winter, but he can no longer keep her on the ground. After a pair of three-furlong breezes, Happy Ticket worked a half-mile last Sunday in 45.60 seconds, and that with Robby Albarado sitting chilly.

"As fast as she's working right now, most of these horses can't run that fast if they had an airplane pulling them," Leggio remarked last week. "Instead of working her and working her, I'll run her in this race. Even if she doesn't do any good, it'll get her fit."

Happy Ticket should do just fine - as long as she can get her air if and when Albarado has to ask her to run. Before leaving the state last year, Happy Ticket proved unbeatable, winning all eight of her races at different Louisiana tracks before making it nine in a row at Arlington. She has won long and short, on turf and on dirt, and will begin her year with another victory if all goes well Saturday.

If Happy Ticket should falter, the obvious alternatives are .